Dealing with Culture Shock in Thailand

BRiYA Article Blog Post - Dealing with Culture Shock in Thailand

In 2018, I decided to volunteer in Thailand. After my experience in Italy and receiving my MFA through a life-changing experience out in Europe, I was ready to give back and help others. I googled how and where to volunteer in Thailand.

There was always an inclination inside of me to visit Thailand due to my affection for the Buddhist traditions. I felt they were a more spiritual country (I later found out the falsity of this assumption). So I found an organization that worked with the intellectually and physically disabled and submitted my candidacy.

When I was accepted I literally jumped up and down with joy and excitement. I couldn’t believe it! I was going to spend five months in Thailand helping others, experiencing a new culture, and growing spiritually.

Super excited for the next adventure, I told all my friends, posted it all over social media, and made all the plans. I got rid of a lot of my possessions, wanting to proactively adopt the Buddhist minimalism.

I packed and managed to prepare for six months of my life in one large suitcase and a backpack. Now if you know me, or if you’re even just a woman, you can imagine how difficult that was. I had to be creative with outfit selections and shoes and decided my hair would have to manage product-less.

My mindset was ready for a life-changing experience. I just didn’t know that also meant painful.

page98image65819712Journaling in Thailand


“Lately I’ve been feeling a lot. I’ve been experiencing feelings of loss, of excitement and anticipation, of confusion, of loneliness. And all in a foreign country that doesn’t quite understand outward expression of emotions.

I’m experiencing growing pains throughout my journey here in Thailand and at times struggling with cultural differences. I just moved to a seemingly desolate village in a new town and am feeling overwhelmed by the lack of resources. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn about another country and to observe myself in it. But I also miss the comfort of my own culture and language. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

I feel like I have to hide a part of myself as I navigate the differences. I love Thailand and a lot of the people I have met are amazing, but today I’m feeling a little out of place. Truly like a foreigner.

But I will persevere and try to stay open-hearted. I’m trying to continue to find God in what I do and where I am. Some days are just harder than others.”

Culture Shock

I experienced culture shock more than anywhere I had previously lived or visited. This is understandable, since all the other places I’ve lived or visited were all Western civilization. I’m half Filipina, so I’m familiar with the Southeast Asian culture in the context of my relatives and my upbringing. Although, I would definitely say that I was raised more “American” than anything else.

Moving to Thailand and being immersed in the culture came quite as a shock. The culture is so different from my own. I learned that Thais will do anything to “save face” and it’s a very shame-based culture. Showing emotions is frowned upon. Being a crier, that was hard for me. Coming from a first world country, the new third world status was in misalignment with everything I had known.

Honestly, I struggled and tried to fight against what was established, assuming that “my way” was the correct way to live. That the way I was raised and lived was more humane, more empowering, more, well, better. It took me at least three months to acclimate and slowly allow my entitlement to fade.

I realized how arrogant it was to come to a different country into a new culture that I didn’t understand and try to change it. However, there are certain choices practiced in Thailand that I believe exist better ways to handle things: such as not abusing animals and wearing seat belts. But I allowed myself to be an observer.

What can I learn from them and from this experience? I realized that in the beginning of my stay I definitely reinforced the idea of the entitled American that so many other countries hate.

Getting Stuck

After volunteering for five months, the school term was finished and our contract was over. However, I found myself in a very interesting situation. I was stuck in Thailand. I had no money to buy a plane ticket back to America because I had maxed out my credit cards and spent all my money while living there and having to do visa runs.

Thankfully, I found a position as an English Kindergarten teacher. It paid very little, but after a few months I’d be able to fly back to America. I took the job and moved to a very small village.

It was basically in the middle of nowhere, dirt roads everywhere and no one around who spoke English, except for my roommate and fellow teacher. We spent a lot of time with each other and grew closer in our situation of what felt like isolation and scarcity.

Dealing With Shame

I absorbed a lot of the culture and saw around me and felt the cultural humility. Women’s bodies were not meant to be shown. Of course, there are the outliers who dress provocatively. But for the most part, I was surrounded with people who covered their skin in the blistering heat and humidity. I felt awkward going out in public with a form-fitting dress that showed my shoulders and knees.

Even at the beaches the women would wear t-shirts and shorts in the water. Wearing a bathing suit made you stick out like a sore, foreign thumb. I started to feel indecent and ashamed when I would wear outfits that were appropriate for the summer weather in the West but not in Thai culture. I adjusted myself to “fit in” but I still felt like I stood out, especially in a village with no other farangs (Westerners) in sight.

Not being myself or wearing what felt right for me made me feel a deep sense of loneliness. I felt fake while trying to blend in. I wanted to be respectful to the Thai people and their culture, but at the same time I was following unwritten guidelines that didn’t resonate with me. Constantly on edge, I was always afraid I was going to offend someone. Needless to say, I was relieved when I finally managed to buy a plane ticket home.

Back in America

I lived in Thailand for eight months. And now I’ve been back in America for eight months. I realize that I still feel shame and awkward with going out in public in outfits that show skin.

Maybe it’s because I’ve moved to a new area with different nuances that I’m unfamiliar with or maybe because I’ve carried over some of the Thai culture

with me. It’s amazing how we acclimate. Humans are very adaptable creatures. I’m always reminded of the analogy of the boiling frog.

The Boiling Frog Metaphor

If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, he’ll jump out. If you put a frog in a pot of water and incrementally turn up the water until it starts to boil, he will allow himself to be boiled alive.

How does this apply to my life? Well, I certainly don’t want to be boiled alive. How much pain and loneliness will I allow myself to endure before I’m willing to change? A question I am consistently faced with.

I’ve created a life with a low tolerance to discomfort. What this means is that when I find something that upsets me in some way, I search to find a solution to improve my situation.

For me, I needed to get out of Thailand. For a multitude of reasons. I love the country, but I really am grateful for being an American. I know that there is a lot of things wrong with America right now, but there are a lot of things wrong everywhere in the world. I’ve learned that firsthand.

I would definitely go back and visit Thailand, but I think because I was born and raised a Westerner the lifestyle is just too different from my own to ever fully be a part of who I am.

Thailand Takeaways

We’re products of our environment. 100%. For me, there’s no disputing this fact. We can easily be allowed to fall prey to accepting certain aspects of our lives because we either don’t realize there’s a better way to live or because we don’t think we have a choice.

Now, I can go on a whole tirade about the injustices of the world, but I’m sure you’re ready to move on with your day. So I’ll leave you with this takeaway: I realized the less I was being true to myself, the lonelier I felt. From now on, wherever I am in the world, I am dedicated to being authentically me.

Even if I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere, it’s no more lonely than being surrounded by thousands of people and feeling like I’m not being seen.

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